HR Playbook: Responding to a Harassment Claim

“. . . you’ve all had that employee relations moment when a woman comes in and shares a story that freezes you in your tracks. Your mind thinks the words “Oh s*#!” but you remain visibly calm as she shares her story.”

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

What I love about a career in human resources is that ‘people’ keep things very interesting. I will never be able to say that “I’ve seen it all” because even when facing a similar scenario, how an individual responds or behaves makes it an entirely new situation.

If you’ve spent time in management or human resources, you’ve all had that employee relations moment when a woman comes in and shares a story that freezes you in your tracks. Your mind thinks the words “Oh s*#!” but you remain visibly calm as she shares her story. She shares that she’s been offended by an incredibly crude comment made by a coworker. She’s visibly upset and expresses that she’s ‘had it’ and ‘will not work with that man again.’ She then tells you that she’s going home for the day and walks out.

A quick clarification before we proceed:   I refer to the harasser as a “he” and the harassed as a “she” for a reason.

  • Men of the world, the sad truth is that most of the harassment in business is men. Until we clean-up our act, the gender in my harassment illustrations will remain this way.
    • To illustrate, in 2015 6,822 sexual harassment complaints were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Only 17.1% of charges were filed by males.
  • Legal disclaimer: I am not an attorney . . . blah, blah, blah.
    • If you’d prefer a more technical description than my storyline, the EEOC provides a great summary on what constitutes sexual harassment at this link.

Faced with this situation, here’s a simple step-by-step approach to assessing the risk and resolving the problem.

ASSESS THE RISK

  • Assure the offended employee that you will address and fix the problem. You are in a better position to improve your situation if she remains employed. If she leaves the organization, damages could potentially include lost wages and more.
  • Gather all of the details possible from the offended employee while it’s fresh on her mind. Ask for evidence, witnesses, or anything that might help to corroborate her story or provide supportive insights.
  •  Investigate the alleged offender’s side of the story. Do your best to identify exactly what was said (or done), when it occurred and how often. Witnesses are still key, as are dates, times and evidence. Collect everything that is available in a quiet, professional way, out of respect for both parties.
    • If the stories don’t line-up and there are no witnesses (worst case scenario), please read my “She Said, He Said” blog post for instructions.
    • Assuming that you are able to reach a level of confidence that you know what was said (or done), here are some of the important questions that need to be considered:
      • Was the behavior isolated? Is this a one-time occurrence, or a pattern of behavior? Has the offended employee asked the other individual to stop or quit at any point? A one-time event may be in the favor of the employer, where a pattern is cause for concern.
      • Was the behavior pervasive? Even an isolated incident can be big enough to warrant a more serious review.
      • Would a reasonable person have been offended? Objectively looking at what has occurred, you should ask whether a reasonable person would have found the same event offensive. There are occasions where individuals are highly sensitive, and other situations where a misinterpretation or misunderstanding might occur.
      • Was the individual in a supervisory role, or position of influence? If the individual was in some sort of managerial role, or had some influence over the offended employee’s work, that can greatly impact the exposure for the company.
      • A ‘strike’ in any of the above factors is significant, and action should be taken by the employer. Multiple strikes makes the decision to terminate the offending employee a little more clear.

DAMAGE CONTROL

Now that an assessment of the issue has been made, it’s time to do damage control. The right response from an employer can minimize and even eliminate the exposure created by the poor behavior of the employee. Here’s what the employer should do.

  • Act promptly. This is not the time to play bureaucracy, wait until the CEO returns from overseas, or establish a review committee. The more swiftly the employer acts, the better its actions appear.
    • It appears that the complaint was taken seriously.
    • It addressed and eliminated the behavior quickly.
  • Fix the behavior. You need to consider what it’s going to take to absolutely prevent that behavior from occurring again. On the mild side, it means coaching the offending employee and getting him to commit to cease-and-desist. On the more aggressive side, it may mean termination. Transfers, reassignments, written warnings and everything else is also a consideration. Just make sure whatever you decide to do prevents the behavior from occurring again.
  • Prevent retaliation. Offer assurances to the offended that this behavior will not occur again, and that there will be no retaliation for her reporting this information. Ask her to immediately let you know if she senses any sort of retaliation. If the offending employee is going to remain employed, be very candid about your zero-tolerance for retaliation.

SUMMARY

When an employee comes in and has the courage to report the “H” word, be a respectful listener, gather facts, act quickly and offer assurances that this behavior will never occur again.

Your prompt and sincere attention to the issue is your best chance at addressing the issue, damage control and could ultimately save your employer the embarrassment and expense of a harassment lawsuit.

For more information on Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, click here!

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